Three Ems, An Ed, And Echo Lake Revisited

I try in these pages not to slip into plain old nostalgia. It’s too easy and too common: everyone has a decade or so in their past during which the world was a better place than it is now, and already our children are beginning to come over all sentimental about the 1990s, which as far as I’m concerned are still the present. It follows, then, that the world of the past was, is, and always will be better than the world at hand, and that nostalgia, though great fun, is too highly personal to be truly meaningful. So I stick with the Three Ems: memory, meaning—where there is any— and now and then, murder.

Just last year I found that I had a long lost great-great uncle, Edward Hewitt, who’d been edited out of our family history. Perhaps he was already considered a prodigal son when, having left the family seat in Simcoe County, he decided to stop in Winnipegland—as any sane person would—and work for the Canadian Pacific here and in Coldwell, rather than continue west to farm in Saskatchewan with his brothers. As well as his bunk in the company dorm out back of Port Coldwell Station, Ed kept a Winnipeg bolthole by Sturgeon Creek in the then semi-rural St James. I’d like to think his digs were more salubrious than the trio of blue dumpsters now occupying the site. but the more I get to know Uncle Ed, the less I’m surprised by any bad news about him. Certainly his life was sufficiently unsavoury to have ended unsurprisingly at the hands of a still unidentified murderer, on the shore of Echo Lake. Here is the Winnipeg Tribune report published the Tuesday after the killing:

POLICE SUSPECT FOUL PLAY IN LAKEHEAD DEATH: Man Found Dead in Port Arthur With Pockets Rifled Thought Slain
PORT ARTHUR, Ont Sept 8, 1925. Under circumstances indicating murder, the body of Edward Hewitt; aged about 60 years, 10 years in the employ of the Canadian Pacific Railway as rock-cut watchman with headquarters at Port Coldwell. was found on the shore of Echo Lake, 30 feet below the railway track, about 7 o’clock Saturday evening. A wound giving every appearance of having been inflicted by a blunt instrument, was on the right temple. A roll of bills, said to have aggregated about $1000, which Hewitt was known to have carried on his person, was missing. The provincial police are investigating and an arrest is expected. 

Well, there was no arrest, nor any further reportage, so I’ve been doing some research in order to reconstruct some of the detail of Uncle Edward’s life and death, and to bring him, if not back to life, then at least back into the family which has forsaken him for nearly a century.

A rock cut like the one where Edward Hewitt protected slow-moving trains from falling rocks, freeloading rod-riders and larcenous leapers.

A rock cut like the one where Edward Hewitt protected slow-moving trains from falling rocks, freeloading rod-riders and larcenous leapers.

As a rock-cut watchman, Edward helped protect the trains which moved by necessity at a snail’s pace along a pretty dodgy section of track. Eastbound trains carried his brothers’ Saskatchewan rye to Ontario and Québec, but Edward chose to take his share of the harvest in its tastier and more lucrative distilled form on the return journey west. The disappearance of a bottle or two here and there—maybe even the occasional case—was par for the course on that long haul, and minor shortages at the Winnipeg railhead were only rarely investigated by railway police. But Uncle Ed got stars in his eyes when a CPR colleague told him he knew a guy with a boat who could sell as much hard liquor as he could get to another guy who lived on Isle Royale, Michigan, just fifteen miles off the Lake Superior shore and five miles inside the thirsty, jitterbugging, prohibition-stricken USA.

Edward started increasing his “harvest”, and week by week the summer of 1925 he amassed a marketable surplus he hid in the narrow strip of woods between tiny Echo Lake and the mighty Superior, which is bisected by the US border. The first shipment of twenty cases went without a hitch in the wee small hours of Thursday September 3rd. The $1800 take was split three ways by Ed, his CPR crony who had expertly altered the manifests and unlocked the freight-car doors, and the guy with the boat.

Wouldn't you?

Wouldn’t you?

So far, so good, but Ed was now infected with greed and the next night, the start of the weekend, he headed into Port Arthur in search of a big-stakes poker game. He found one, and whisky-addled though he was, he managed to turn his $600 into just over a grand, running out of less lavishly bankrolled opponents one by one till the game broke up. He managed to stagger to the station just in time to hitch a ride home in the caboose of the midnight train to Coldwell. Alone, he thought, but no such luck. He didn’t disembark at Port Coldwell Station. Strictly speaking he didn’t disembark at all, but was bashed on the head and thrown off the train a few miles south of Coldwell, just a stone’s throw away from his Echo Lake stash, where the trains always slowed to a crawl. His $1000 wad was gone, but it didn’t matter, because Ed was dead.

Port Coldwell Station in its (and Edward’s) heyday.                          CPR Staff dormitory to the rear, left.

Port Coldwell Station in its (and Edward’s) heyday. CPR Staff dormitory to the rear, left.

By virtue of his day job, Uncle Ed was bound to have been a tough guy, perhaps not bad to the bone, but certainly no angel. The local police were probably happy enough to let him and his type kill each other off, and it’s clear the “investigating” was neither lengthy nor dogged. Had the Mounties been brought in they would doubtless have “got their man”, but it was not their jurisdiction.

I stand to be corrected on any of this, and would love to know more, but that would require one or more of the killer’s descendants to come forward; I won’t be holding my breath. So this, for the time being, is Edward Hewitt’s story. Sure, it’s not the whole story, but it’s the only one he’s got, and a damn sight more than his family has allowed to be told thus far.

It’s a little nephew’s little gift to you, bad Uncle Ed. Welcome home.

Storing away some future memories at Grant’s Mill, Sturgeon Creek. (Winnipeg Tribune Photo Collection)

Storing away some future memories at Grant’s Mill, Sturgeon Creek. (Winnipeg Tribune Photo Collection)

https://www.google.co.nz/maps/place/Coldwell,+ON+P0T,+Canada/@48.5762912,-86.7539179,285718m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!3m1!1s0x4d43795c02a7b557:0x94341db3344f2473


Crystal White Persuasion

If you don’t mind the odd brown-eye or worse, then a slow roll through town on an early morning train can be entertaining and is certainly educational. Without breaking any laws you can be a serial peeper across the back alley, into the back yard, and at the backside of a nation. The last time I had the experience was when passing through the outskirts of Poughkeepsie and other points south on the way to New York City. I can report that Americans are spookily similar to us when it comes to the early morning routines and rituals which reveal us as brothers and sisters under the skin. I guess there is residual sleep dust, otherwise known as rheum, which needs to be cleared before the daily epiphany of specialness and superiority experienced on both sides of the border and informing the conduct of our respective days.

There’s residual snow, too, in early spring upstate New York and it’s just like ours in the true north: patchy, grey and slushy, good for nothing but snowballs that really hurt. Dogs won’t even poo in it, and nor will boys bother “autographing” it, and even if they did it wouldn’t show. For those art forms, and for less damaging snowballs, you need the virginal white fluffy  stuff of December.

A fresh fall on top of a hard-packed base meant that in my smooth- soled moccasins I could slide up and down Somerville Street as quick as a flash, flicking up fabulous little Christmas-lit blizzards in my wake. That’s why I was sent on a mercy dash to Ringers Drugs on Christmas Eve 1962, for the life-giving Dr Pepper and Old Dutch BBQ chips needed to keep a family Scrabble session going.

This was probably also a ruse by my father to take me out of action for one game, so that he could escape for that game at least my evergreen challenge to his evergreen contention that the addition of pre or re to any old verb yielded a new Scrabble-legit word. Prezoom was his favourite (mine too), followed by prezip and requibble. But, ruse or not, I figured that a guy who’d voluntarily —unnecessarily, in my view— forsworn for life his beloved Scotch deserved to be indulged in the occasional small pleasure. So I bundled up and headed out for the three-block slide to my own personal Star of Bethlehem.

For a change I paid for the supplies, which seemed somehow appropriate on a holy night, and anyway it wasn’t my money. On the way home I felt a new sensation; had I known the term I would have thought to myself, “So this is agapé.” Every little bungalow was Christmas-lit in similar fashion: not a one was overdone, but every one was twinkling prettily. The night was crystalline and windless, and fresh illuminated snow was falling. Every front window emanated a gently glowing warmth and hinted at a quiet, harmonious tableau behind drapes drawn against the cold. Families just like ours—for that moment at least—doing family things. Somerville Street was the world, and the world was good.

I slid on home, unbundled myself, and sat back down, resolving in my newfound universal love state to let my father win the next game. But halfway through it he just had to proffer prezooming, and I just had to say “Challenge.” Agapé was agone, folks, and I never really experienced it again, though Poughkeepsie did come close.


From Russia With Love

I was rifling through the pockets of my father’s Air Force dress uniform, looking for tobacco or maybe even cash, and found only a little black booklet with RESTRICTED in big yellow letters on the cover. Exciting! It said something like Authorized RCAF Intelligence Personnel Only, so of course I opened it; what could be the worst they’d do to a treasonous little kid? I don’t think they had juvenile courts martial back then.

Anyhoo, the big military secret turned out to be nothing but a course in intermediate Russian. Refusing to be underwhelmed, I added up Restricted + Intelligence + Russian and “decided” that my dad had been a spy.  Maybe he still was, as he had remained in the Air Force Reserve post-war. Or maybe not. He did his war service on the sensible side of the Pacific, and I understand that he was a radio operator with the rank of Sergeant, and that the Air Force taught him Russian so he could listen in on what our not-to-be-trusted “allies” had to say for themselves.  His achievement in Russian seemed to have been in comprehension and not so much in conversation. Who knows but that if he’d better mastered the latter skill he couldn’t have prevented the Cold War? I have always blamed him for not doing so.

He had the same problem with French: he could read it and get the jokes on French TV, but couldn’t speak it to save his life, so could not carry on a conversation with his French-Canadian neighbours. Then again, why would he, what with there being no talking to the French?

From the restricted textbook I taught myself the Russian alphabet, but it wouldn’t be till high school that I learned a meaningful phrase in Russian, from the older classmate who introduced me to Samuel Beckett, the Greek & Roman philosophers, and marijuana: I guess this made him my guru, so it was a shock to learn that a decade later he’d been jailed for crimes against pre-schoolers. The phrase was “Любовь не картошка.”  It’s pronounced something like “Lyubov nya katorshka” and means, of course, “Love is not a potato.” Useful to know, but on balance I’d rather have learned this from my father the failed peacemaker. Too bad we never had “that chat”.

Not so long ago I had an elderly English drinking buddy, Roy Snow, who’d served in the RAF in the Battle of Britain, prior to which he and many of his compatriots trained at the RCAF base in Carberry, a little bit west of Winnipegland. I asked him whether the English flyboys had had much social intercourse with the locals. They had indeed, so I told him that we’d had a Somerville Avenue neighbour named Beryl, born and raised in Carberry and eighteen or so at the time he was stationed there. I posited that they may well have met once or twice at the Saturday night dance, and then I let my imagination run wild: “So, Roy, do you think you might have… I mean, I guess you probably…er…”

“RAF, William, RAF. Of course I did.”


Think I’ll Go Out To Alberta

 

winnipeg_ralphmaybank

 

Miss Tinkler and her very first (I think) little flock. Strange to consider in hindsight that she wasn’t really a great deal older than us kids, and even now is only in her mid-seventies. I like to think she still has the ponytail – sadly not on display here – and the ’56 Customline, but I guess it’s more likely she has a blue rinse and a mobility scooter. And maybe a sixty-something toyboy too, but he’s unlikely to be one of this bunch, what with two of the six males having died young by their own hands.

Sitting to my left is Jimmy Bradford. He’s probably looking so happy because he’s just remembered that he lives in the Donna Reed Show. My excuse is that I’ve been told that in place of final exams (yep – final exams in Grade One!) I can take a viva with Principal Smith (his real name). This will mean my family can drive to Calgary a week before school’s out and not have to leave me home alone.

I don’t remember much about Winnipeg’s wild western kid brother, which is just as well, because cousin Sarah would only correct me on anything I might say. Our dad being our dad, it goes without saying that we headed back east the day before the Calgary Stampede began. “Too commercial. Too many Americans.” And I would think and wisely keep to myself, “Yeah, and too much fun, cheapskate. Xenophobe.”

I do remember Brooks, Alberta, though. It was a dark and stormy night. So stormy, in fact, that visibility got to zero and even our dad had to admit defeat and stop trying to drive through it.  It was still a few weeks until Robert Bloch would give the world The Bates Motel, so we had to settle for second worst: The Brooks Motel. There was a bed for the parents, and we four kids had to arrange our sleeping bags on the floor, which was fair enough, but our configuration was made a tad difficult by the leaks in the roof and the needful placement of buckets, and the two little ones had to curl up under the table. So the room had puddles, the biblical torrent on the tin roof was deafening, but not so nerve-shredding as my little brother’s crying and whimpering (fear plus chronic infantile eczema). Nor was it as angry and foreboding as our dad’s low rumble threatening to become a roar, brought on by our neighbours, who were drowning all of this out, a-moanin’ and a-shriekin’ and a-thrashin’ on the other side of the de rigeur paper-thin partition.

The official version, from our mum, was that the woman was having a baby – maybe even twins or triplets. I don’t know if eleven year-old Valerie or thirteen year-old Cameron bought this. I did, of course (but who knew it HURTS?), and itchy little Ross was oblivious, distracted by his flaming skin.  Over the ensuing decades, though, I have managed to piece together a pretty fair idea of how babies are made, and I can now report that we were not witnesses to the delivery of the Brooks litter but to, er… its conception.

We decamped before daybreak, as soon as the rain and the thunderheads began to dissipate and the four strong winds were folding up into an innocent prairie zephyr. The holiday was over, and the deathly quiet drive back to Winnipeg was non-stop, save for the inevitable running out of gas near Miss Tinkler’s Starbuck.  As a very young man I came back to Alberta for the purpose of having my heart broken for the second of three times by a girl who later became a Princess of Burma, albeit in exile in Edmonton. But that was 1971, a whole year after “my” Winnipegland ended, so not for these pages. Just wanted to get in the thing about the Princess, is all.

Here’s the song, performed by Jack Nicholson in a darned good impersonation of our Neil, and here’s what I’ve “decided” became of the Brooks Motel, which stopped operating under that name shortly after our brief and unedifying stay.

p.s. If the song is being elusive, go to  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DP9UjLeLN5A and leave a comment if it’s still not there.

 


Running Back to Saskatoon

The title, with thanks to The Guess Who, is the only Winnipegish thing today, because I’m just slipping out for a brief trip to Saskatchewan, returning soon by way of the Starbuck Texaco.

My almost-twin cousin Sarah was sharing her recipe for madeleines the other day, so of course I recalled our shared auntie of that name and then all of our shared Hewitt ancestry. She asked if I had much memory of our grandfather, and I surprised myself with what was still there. I answered her thus:

“Yes, I remember him quite well. He was a bit gruff, or maybe just taciturn, but no more intimidating than any man of that age. I spent a week with him and his third wife Hazel at their Carlyle home the summer of 1958, and these are the things he let me do:

  • He let me fetch coal from the cellar, and said I probably wouldn’t enjoy eating it, and to resist the temptation.
  • He let me tidy up the garage and hammer nails into various things I found there.
  • He let me go with him mornings (by car!) the block and a half to Main Street, where he and his cronies, rather than go into the beer parlour or coffee shop, would just park their cars and then circulate, stopping to lean on the hood of this car or that, and chat about who knew what. There were occasional silences that went on for a while till one of them said ‘yep….’. It could’ve have been ‘yip’. Either way, the ritual was daily except Sundays.
  • He let me go with him to the lake for a semi-pro baseball game, complete with hot dog and Orange Crush. And an Oh Henry!
  • He let me pick peas from the garden and eat as many as I liked while doing so.
  • He let me sit at the kitchen table and eat peanut butter cookies while Hazel, who clearly had stepped right out of a Norman Rockwell painting and into his life, baked another batch, plus several loaves of bread and some pies: cherry, rhubarb, pumpkin….
  • He let me sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor next to a pile of empties. When I asked what Seagram’s Rye was, and why all the empties, the answer was ‘Never mind.'”

So yes,  I do remember him, in all his gruff and taciturn glory. I never saw him alive again, so I’m glad he let me do all that good stuff when we both had the time.

I could point you to some Carlyle townscapes, but although the locations are pretty much as remembered, the storefronts are now faux-something-or-other (Wild West, maybe?), the cars have no chrome, no fins, no style, and there’s not a ghost to be found anywhere. On balance I choose memory, with a little imagination to fill in the gaps.  Here, though, are a few photos of our Grandpa and his learned first wife Florence, our grandmother who died before we were born.